Court denies change of venue for burglary trial Break-ins occurred near home of judge


A man charged in a string of burglaries will be tried in Howard County, despite his claim that he cannot get a fair trial because the break-ins occurred near the home of a local judge.

Jeffrey Charles Combs, 29, wanted his case in Howard Circuit Court moved to another county, but the request was denied in a ruling issued Friday.

Mr. Combs is charged with four counts of burglary, eight counts of daytime housebreaking, six counts of malicious destruction and 30 counts of theft in eight break-ins in the Hilltop, Chapelview and Linwood neighborhoods of Ellicott City.

The burglaries occurred near the home of Howard District Judge James Vaughan.

In addition, three Circuit Court judges live about four miles from the neighborhoods.

At a hearing on the request before Judge Dennis Sweeney last week, Deputy Public Defender Louis Willemin said the proximity of the burglaries to the judges' homes might bias the judge who handles his client's cases.

In addition, Mr. Willemin expressed concern that Mr. Combs' conviction for trespassing at the Ellicott City property of Senior Assistant State's Attorney Kate O'Donnell might also affect the current case.

But Judge Sweeney dismissed the request.

"Any concerns about either particular judges or particular assistant state's attorneys can be remedied by less drastic procedures than [a change of venue]," Judge Sweeney said in his ruling.

Judges generally grant requests to move cases to another county only when they involve more severe charges, such as murder, and have received a large amount publicity.

Mr. Willemin said he will wait until Mr. Combs' trial and see which judge is assigned to the case to determine what steps he will take to avoid any bias from the bench.

The defense attorney said it's unlikely that he will request a judge from another county to preside over his client's trial because that would delay the case.

Mr. Combs is accused of taking various items from the houses, ranging from weed eaters to stereo equipment and silverware, after forcing open windows or doors between Dec. 1 and Jan. 3, court documents say.

The break-ins occurred within walking distance of Mr. Combs' home in the 3500 block of Fels Lane, court documents say.

Three houses on Church Road, two houses on Linwood Road, and one house each on Park Avenue, Hickory and Belfont drives were burglarized, court documents say.

Howard investigators arrested Mr. Combs on Jan. 13 after learning from Baltimore County police that he had been selling numerous items at pawn shops, court documents say. The burglary victims identified the items as their stolen belongings.

Mr. Combs will have separate trials for each of the burglaries. The first trial is scheduled for Monday.

Meanwhile, Assistant State's Attorney Mary Reese wants the court to permit her to introduce evidence about all eight burglaries at each of Mr. Combs' separate trials. A ruling on the request is pending.

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